As you will guess from the title of this Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I meant to post on it closer to Christmas Day than I have in fact achieved. I chose it for two reasons – firstly the obvious seasonal one, and secondly because my first Carson McCullers post was an unusual piece and perhaps not completely reflective of the writer she was. Her story “Home before Christmas”, while nothing like her best-known novels, does get us a bit closer to them.
First, though, some background. LOA’s notes tell us that the story, written in 1949, was the first of a few essays McCullers wrote for magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook. McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, says, according to LOA, that “even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, ‘I want book—lots of books, Mama’.” I suspect many of you reading this will say the same about yourselves. I know I would!
LOA shares a couple of other stories about the adult Carson and gift-giving – including one that resulted in such a kerfuffle that someone was written out of a will, and another involving Truman Capote. However, they take us further away from the point of THIS story.
“Home for Christmas” was apparently commissioned by Mademoiselle for its 1949 Christmas issue, and was published alongside pieces by food writer MFK Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West (whom I plan to cover here one day via the Library of America). LOA chose to share McCullers’ piece this last Christmas because 2017 was the centenary of McCullers birth.
Now I said in my opening paragraph that this story, although nothing like her best-known novels, does connect us a little with them. Firstly, an autobiographical piece, it describes life in a southern family, but more significantly, like The member of the wedding, it is seen through a child’s eye. It is not like her novels in the sense that it is not Gothic, and nor does it deal in any major way with the loneliness or “outsiderness” that I remember from her oeuvre – though there is a touch of melancholy in it, all the same.
In some ways, it’s a traditional story about childhood yearning for Christmas. It begins in August with our young first person narrator, that is, Carson, pondering Christmas, and it concludes, just after Christmas, with her yearning for the next Christmas. In between, we hear about the buying of Christmas presents, the cooking of Christmas food, and how Christmas day itself was spent. But, there is also a little unifying theme running through this – the “mystery of Time”.
In the second paragraph, it is August and our narrator is up a tree thinking:
I did not want to talk with my brother. I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time. Here I was, on this August afternoon, in the tree-house, in the burnt, jaded yard, sick and tired of all our summer ways. (I had read Little Women for the second time, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Little Men, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I had read movie magazines and even tried to read love stories in the Woman’s Home Companion—I was so sick of everything.) How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree? I puzzled about the now and later and rubbed the inside of my elbow until there was a little roll of dirt between my forefinger and thumb. Would the now I of the tree-house and the August afternoon be the same I of winter, firelight and the Christmas tree? I wondered.
You can see biographer Carr’s point about books can’t you? Anyhow, again, I suspect many of us have pondered Time in this way. McCullers doesn’t labour the point but it pops up a few more times in the article, including the notion of time behaving differently for different people. “How”, she writes, “could it be that when she [her sister] opened her eyes it would be Christmas while I lay awake in the dark for hours and hours? The time was the same for both of us, and yet not at all the same.” There’s also a delightful little – almost throwaway – line about how her father would manipulate the clocks to enable them to get up early on Christmas morning but not too early for the parents.
“Home before Christmas” is not a particularly deep story/article, but then as an article for a Christmas edition of a magazine, it probably wasn’t meant to be. It is, however, an enjoyable read and, while presumably part of that bread-and-butter work that writers do to survive, it also provides some insight into a significant writer of, and from, America’s south.
“Home for Christmas”
First published: Mademoiselle, December 1949
Available: Online at the Library of America